Sterling Pons: Day 4

The Real Group Captain Lionel Mandrax (retired) was in his room in a dressing gown, stood at the window twitching a net curtain, looking as well as the day he was born – if he had been born as an old man with white hair and a moustache.

“I’m here about Harry Rubik,” I said. “You spoke with my agent on the phone.”

“You took your time getting here,” he said irritably.

“There was an imposter,” I said, “downstairs pretending to be you.”

Mandrax took this news in his stride. Apparently he must have been used to such things, for he said: “I meant that I expected someone would have come along before now. About my life story… you see I’m not gaga yet. Although they seem to think I am. That’s why they make me live here. But I’ve seen the end of the world and lived to tell about it. And I’ll tell you too, if you’d care to hear. Not too many people do. I suppose they never did.”

“I’ll listen,” I said, “If you think it will help…”

Mandrax explained that he had first encountered the future film-maker Harry Rubik as a cub reporter on assignment in a well-known city in occupied Germany immediately following the end of the war there, and the young American photojournalist must have made an impression on him as they had remained in contact into the post war years when Mandrax had risen to the heights of Captain in the Royal Air Force. Stationed at RAF Brize-Norton, he was one of the men who handled Britain’s nuclear deterrant at that time.

Mandrax never let me in on what he was doing there in Germany, but Rubik must have guessed then that the Englishman he met there in the ruins was destined for greater things, because when he came to make his famous film about nuclear war, one day to be acclaimed as a great classic, he had one person in mind who could clue him in on the technical side of things needed to design the production (only a limited amount of information about the nuclear deterrant was allowed into public hands at that time, in the coldest depths of the Cold War).

“That’s right, I met him when he first came to England. This was before the films he would do later on that made him famous. He came for a sort of unofficial tour of the base while they were making that picture. He knew the film studio people wouldn’t be able get him in, so he came to me and I gave them a jolly good look around.”

“Let me get this straight – you let your friend a foreign film maker – with a
possibly eastern-european sounding name – look around Britain’s largest secret
nuclear weapons facility?”

“Yes – he was a friend. What was I supposed to say?”

I suddenly felt very glad that such a reasonable man as Mandrax should have
been in command over a technology that had the power to take out half a
continent with the push of a button if the powers that be had decided they really wanted to. However, I had the feeling that living through the impending reality of a thermonuclear conflict must have been even more terrifying than the film’s portrayal of it.

“The military wouldn’t allow Harry access to any of its installations at all. That’s why, when the film came out, they were so stunned that he had managed to re-create perfectly the interior of one of their bombers. That was how Harry got the NASA job…”

“I didn’t know about that – NASA?”

“Yes, he made that film… what’s it called… Of Time And Stars. Came out in… let’s see now… nineteen sixty-eight. He worked with the space agency on that one. I believe they even supplied some of the cameras. You must check the facts, of course.”

“Thank you,’ I said, ‘I will. Can you tell me anything else about  Nuclear War: The Movie that might be useful to me?”

“Only this: that they were writing a sequel.”

“Who was? Rubik??”

“Yes, he and a young screenwriter called Varley. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Strange sort of chap. Not surprised nothing came of it.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know,” I said, “what Harry Rubik might have had planned for the sequel to Nuclear War, whatever they were thinking of calling it?”

“Ah, mmm, yes, he did consult me from time to time.”

The man appeared to be trying hard to recollect something that had taken place a very long time ago. He sat up in his armchair and offered me a biscuit.

“I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘that my memory isn’t what it once was.”

I slumped back in my seat. To have come all this way, only to have my prize
snatched away from me…

“…But you can have a look for yourself, if you want to. Most people in these
homes just atrophy, but I’ve been taking the time to whip my papers into some
kind of order. Working on my memoirs, don’t you know! There’s a copy of what
they completed of the script in the shoe box up there in the top of my cupboard.
Harry sent it to me to see what I thought… or perhaps he just wanted somebody to have a copy for safe keeping.” He gestured with his walking stick, and I reached down a dusty brown cardboard container from which he rather awkwardly removed the lid and handed me a folio of papers.

“Now you know why I told you I knew someone would come and see me,” he said.


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